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Monday, November 23, 2009

New Hudson River Flight Rules

The airspace over the Hudson River, where nine people died in the midair collision of a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter, has been split into a low-altitude zone for local traffic and a higher one for longer-distance flights.

The low zone is now reserved for local fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, such as those carrying commuters and sightseers. The zone above it is for those aircraft passing through the New York City area on longer flights to other destinations.

A New York Airspace Task Force chartered by the FAA developed a comprehensive series of recommendations to increase air safety over the Hudson River. They come in the wake of the Aug. 8, 2009 midair collision of a tourist helicopter and a Piper Saratoga.

"These changes will define separate corridors for aircraft operating locally and those flying along the Hudson River area," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "Separating aircraft on different missions and improving pilot situational awareness will add more layers of safety to this high-demand airspace." The rule now requires pilots to follow safety procedures that were previously recommended but were not mandatory.

The Piper Saratoga and the sightseeing helicopter carrying a pilot and five Italian tourists collided over the river, killing all nine people aboard both aircraft. The single- engine fixed wing PA-32R-300 (N71MC) ran into the rear of the Liberty Helicopter Tours Eurocopter AS 350 BA (N401LH) as the two aircraft were flying in the same direction.

The fatal accident took place in a narrow corridor of airspace over the river reserved for aircraft operating under "see and avoid" rules. The Piper Saratoga, which had taken off from the Teterboro Airport (TEB) was heading south over the river to Ocean City (NJ) Municipal Airport (26N). The helicopter, had just taken off from the West 30th Street Heliport (JRA) on the West Side of Manhattan for a 12-minute sightseeing tour.

Helicopter pilots and others who frequently fly the Hudson sightseeing route, which keeps them under 1,000 feet in altitude, relied on special operating procedures, including broadcasting on and monitoring of a dedicated radio frequency designed to make pilots aware of nearby traffic. Such transmissions were recommended but weren't required.

The area surrounding the major airports in New York City is designated Class B airspace. Pilots are required to get permission from air traffic control (ATC) to enter Class B airspace and to follow ATC instructions once there.

The mid-air occurred in the Hudson River Class B exclusion area, a passageway through New York City area Class B airspace that permits (non-air carrier) aircraft to fly north and south along the Hudson River without authorization from air traffic controllers.

Aircraft, such as the Piper involved in the fatal accident, departing Teterboro airport for destinations to the south or southeast had to either request ATC clearance to enter the Class B airspace or circumnavigate the Class B airspace around Newark airport to the west or use the Hudson River Class B exclusion area. In the Hudson River Class B exclusion area, they were required to remain at or below 1,100 feet.

The safety enhancements recommended by the Task Force restructured the airspace, mandate new pilot operating rules, created a new entry point into the Hudson River airspace from Teterboro, standardized New York area charts and call for new training for pilots, air traffic controllers and businesses that operate helicopters and aircraft in the area.

One of the most significant changes divides the airspace into altitude corridors that separate aircraft flying over the river from those operating to and from local heliports or seaplane bases.

Specifically, the new exclusionary zone is comprised of three components:

  • A uniform "floor" for the Class B airspace over the Hudson River at 1,300 feet, which would also serve as the "ceiling" for the exclusionary zone.
  • Between 1,300-2,000 feet, it requires aircraft to operate in the Class B airspace under visual flight rules but under positive air traffic control, and to communicate on the appropriate air traffic frequency.
  • Between 1,000-1,300 feet, it requires aircraft using VFR to use a common radio frequency for the Hudson River. Aircraft operating below 1,000 feet would use the same radio frequency.

New pilot operating practices require pilots to use specific radio frequencies for the Hudson River and the East River, set speeds at 140 knots or less, and require pilots to turn on anti-collision devices, position or navigation equipment and landing lights, if their aircraft are so equipped. They also require pilots to announce when they enter the area and to report their aircraft description, location, direction and altitude.

Existing common practices that take pilots along the west shore of the river when they are southbound and along the east shore when they are northbound are now mandatory. In addition, pilots are now required to have charts available and to be familiar with the airspace rules.

The FAA has adopted standardized procedures for fixed-wing aircraft leaving Teterboro to enter the Class B airspace over the Hudson River or the exclusionary zone. If an aircraft plans to enter the Class B airspace, Teterboro controllers will now request approval from Newark before the aircraft takes off and is authorized to climb to 1,500 feet. Aircraft that want to enter the VFR exclusionary zone must use a special route over the George Washington Bridge.

FAA safety officials hit a Nov. 19 deadline, allowing them to incorporate the changes to new, standardized aeronautical charts. The charts highlight the Class B VFR corridor and encourage pilots to exercise the option to fly over the Hudson River under air traffic control, instead of entering the congested exclusionary zone.

Finally, the FAA will conduct seminars and coordinate with pilot groups to make pilots aware of the new requirements. The FAA also has developed an online training program that covers flight operations in the New York area.

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